Sometimes a dish doesn't have to be extravagant to be perfect.
Take the marinated eggplant sandwich.
Simple ingredients - eggplant sliced paper-thin, a good vinaigrette dressing for marinating, a handful of mixed greens, a fresh tomato and a firm-crusted ciabatta roll - combine to make a memorable meal.
This month Dishing with the Chef visits Villa Tronco in downtown Columbia. For 70 years the Tronco family has been preparing Italian specialties, starting when Sadie Tronco (known to all as Mama Tronco), began serving plates of spaghetti and meatballs to Northern soldiers, who were stationed at Fort Jackson and homesick for their mothers' cooking. The restaurant is credited for introducing pizza to Columbia, with family members joking it actually had to be given away at first because hardly anyone knew what it was.
Tom Sedio, who has been the executive chef at Villa Tronco for the past 3 1/2 years, said he is proud to be carrying on the tradition of fine Italian dining there.
"This family is great. I've grown with the family, and we work together very well," he said.
It's a cooking style he is familiar with, having grown up in a kitchen with his Italian mother and other relatives, learning their specialties.
At Villa Tronco, all of the sauces are made from scratch when the customer orders the dish. "There are not big batches of alfredo sauce sitting around. It's made in the pan right on the stove," Sedio said. "The pesto is all made in house. It's a 95 percent scratch kitchen."
He cooks plenty of lasagna, chicken parmigiana and shrimp fettucini - a few of the specialties at Villa Tronco - but he also likes to prepare lighter meals.
"I love eggplant. It's so versatile," he said, as he inspects the deep purple vegetable, checking for blemishes or bruises. A perfect eggplant should be smooth and deep purple. If you see a blemish or a soft bruise, it goes bad quickly.
He simply slices off the top, checks to be sure it's white inside, and starts slicing.
"The trick is to get it really thin," he said.
Then he puts the sliced vegetable in a bowl and tosses it with the restaurant's homemade salad dressing - a combination of vinegar, oil, garlic and other spices. He lets it marinate about 40 minutes so the vinegar penetrates the eggplant.
He then piles the eggplant on the ciabatta roll. "It looks almost like roast beef," Sedio said, "I leave the skin right on there. It's beautiful."
The nooks in the ciabatta take on the oil and all of the flavors, with its firm crust holding up to the ingredients.
He suggests pairing the sandwich with a pasta salad or a cup of soup.
"It's fast. It's vegetarian. You don't have to worry about tons of calories . . .," he said. "And it's delicious."